Home December 2011 December in Israel

December in Israel

Chanukah in Israel is a much more subdued affair than is Christmas in the States.  Christmas is the single most important holiday in American culture, whereas Chanukah places a distant fourth in Israeli culture (behind Passover, Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, and Succot).  In fact, unless you have kids in school (who get off for the week of Chanukah – while the rest of the country is officially at work), the holiday of Chanukah might not be such a holiday at all: you might prefer to take a winter vacation at a time when all those screaming little kids will be back in school (plus your employer will be happy that you took up the slack while those with kids took a few days off during the holiday).
And so, what is most striking for an American Jew in Israel during December is not so much the experience of Chanukah as a national holiday, but the absence of Christmas as a national holiday.  It is quite a relief to live in a country where one is not bombarded by the theme of a holiday in which one takes no part.
Sometimes Chanukah coincides with Christmas; sometimes it doesn’t.  Last year it didn’t; this year it does.  This lack of contiguity matters a good deal to American Jews but largely goes unnoticed in the Jewish State.  In America, when December 25 falls within one of the eight days of Chanukah, Jews are in sync with their surrounding culture — they celebrate at the same time that the majority of Americans celebrate.  In Israel, Christmas is not on the cultural radar for most Israeli Jews, and so whether or not it falls out during Chanukah hardly makes a ripple in an Israeli’s consciousness.
Not observing Christmas in America is an important element in one’s American Jewish identity.  Part of what makes me a Jewish American is that I don’t celebrate Christmas.  It follows, therefore, that any time it is assumed that all Americans celebrate Christmas, I (to some extent) will be offended.  Here in Israel, the fact that I don’t celebrate Christmas has almost nothing to do with my Jewish self-identity.  Indeed, one is only mildly aware of the holiday in passing.
Israel’s jelly doughnut (sufganiya) and America’s potato pancake (latke), the treats most associated with the holiday in each country, may be seen as symbolic of the place of Jewish culture in Israel and outside of Israel.  Beginning in early November and on through all of Chanukah, jelly doughnuts can be found at every bakery, supermarket and grocery in Israel, and one can often see people eating them in the street.  The potato latke is prepared in the home and is a much more private eating experience, just as Judaism and Jewish culture is a private, minority affair for Jews outside of Israel.
Precisely because I felt 100 percent American in America, this state of affairs always bothered me.  That is, it was only because I believed that I had a full and equal share in what is America that I was so troubled by the fact that I as a Jew could not celebrate America’s most favored holiday.  This “culture gap” was solved once I moved to Israel, a place where the majority culture and I celebrate together.
Happy Chanukah.

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